Clinging to Two Convictions Simultaneously

There are two things orthodox Christians need to do simultaneously. We must learn to live with the mystery of holding two seemingly opposing truths in tension to become people who are “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Then, at other times, we must be willing to hold on to a truth with fervor and not dilute it by looking for some middle ground. These two convictions can be written in the form of two propositions.

Proposition #1:

Sometimes the Bible teaches two sets of truths which may seem contradictory but are, in fact, complementary. Humility means affirming both, not only one or the other.

Over the course of history, individual people, churches, and even whole denominations have come to loggerheads with one another because they affirm only one half of a dual-truth revelation. One side is convinced that the other side is wrong by emphasizing only one part of the coupled-truth whole. They react by doing the same thing in presenting their half-truth as a whole truth. Each side makes its case by downplaying or ignoring the biblical truths that the other side affirms. “The Bible so clearly teaches this,” each side effuses. “Why are they so blind to the truth?!”

One example of this phenomenon is the faith-versus-works debate. One side trots out all the verses in the Bible that exult God as the Initiator: God predestines, God calls, God justifies, God sanctifies, God glorifies, God gives the grace that alone makes human actions possible, and God is sovereign over everything, including all human actions.

The other side of the debate points to the many biblical passages that underline and glory in human choice.  “Choose this day whom you shall serve.” “You have not because you ask not.” “And Jesus could do no mighty work among them because of their lack of faith.” God is thus presented as either deterministic or impotent.

Other examples abound of seemingly opposing truths:

  • Jesus is fully human and Jesus is fully divine.
  • God is one and God is three.
  • God is love and God is holy.
  • The Church is an institution and the Church is people.
  • Prayer should be personal and extemporaneous (like a child and a father conversing) and prayer should be corporate and liturgical (like royal subjects address their king).
  • Worship should be reverent and worship should be exuberant.

The paradoxical reality is that God’s revelation often comes to us in a more holistic, both/and sort of way. We humans on our own can’t see the big picture and thus are left needing to affirm equally hard what sometimes seems to be a flat-out contradiction. When pressed, we need to be willing to respond,, “You know, I just don’t understand how both sides of this coupled truth can simultaneously be true, but I believe them both nonetheless, and will continue to live accordingly.”

Proposition #2:

Sometimes the Bible teaches a truth clearly and emphatically, and is to be understood primarily in one way only. Humility means affirming it wholeheartedly, without qualification.

Much of what God reveals to us in Holy Scripture simply needs to be believed and obeyed, and not diluted through numerous qualifications. Sometimes we like to think that diluting the truth is a sign of humility when, in fact, it reveals our cowardice and lack of faith. In our attempts at making Scripture more “palatable,” we often try to be wiser than God.

Again, examples abound:

  • Some people are going to hell and will never go to heaven.
  • Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life.
  • It is God’s will for sexual activity to occur only between one man and one woman who are married to each other.
  • Finding one’s life comes by denying self and obeying God, whose revelation originates outside of each person.

Christians need to help one another to simultaneously affirm both Proposition #1 and Proposition #2. On the one hand, we must be wiling to live with mystery; on the other hand, we must be willing to make dogmatic assertions. This is no easy task, and we need one another’s help.

In fact, we need the help of the whole 2,000-year-old Church.

About the Author
Senior Campus Staff Member, GFM Mid-Atlantic

Kevin Offner has been on staff with InterVarsity for 31 years, serving students in New England and now the metro Washington DC area.  He currently oversees faculty and graduate student ministry on five campuses in Washington, DC.  Kevin is married to Amy, and they have an eleven year old son, David.  Kevin is very interested in ecumenical theology:  how to not water down one's tradition's theological commitments while at the same time looking for genuine areas of agreement between the traditions.